I had been doing some unrelated work on the engravers James Heath (1757-1834) and his son Charles Heath (1785-1848) – both fine engravers, both well-known and comparatively well-documented – when I received and enquiry from a customer about a steel-engraving of a Yorkshire country-house published in 1829 and engraved by a different Heath – Percy Heath.
Without having received anything like the level of acclaim accorded to his namesakes, Percy Heath was himself a highly gifted engraver – his style distinctive and characterised by an ease and fluidity of line most uncommon in steel-engraved work. His was a relaxed economy of effort, his plates never overworked, but with an attention to detail on the foreground figures quite unusual among the contemporary topographical engravers of the period.
I had always rather assumed that he must in some way have been related to his better-known contemporaries of the same name, but, although that may yet prove to be the case, I can find no evidence for it at all. His origins remain undiscovered, but he was apprenticed – in his full name of John Percy Heath – to another well-known engraver and etcher in George Cooke (1781-1834) on the 7th November 1820. Cooke is of course remembered for his “Views in London and its Vicinity” series (1826-1834), as well as for his collaborations with artists as distinguished John Sell Cotman, James Duffield Harding, Samuel Prout, David Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield, and – not least – his own son, Edward William Cooke, and the great J. M. W. Turner himself.
Cooke had a number of other pupils and apprentices who became highly distinguished in the own right, including his nephew William John Cooke (1797-1865), the artist and lithographer Thomas Shotter Boys (1803-1874), and the engraver John Saddler (1813-1892) – all of whom, like Cooke and the other Heaths, have their own entries in the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”. It is recorded of the young Saddler that he once took along a proof, largely his own work, for Turner to inspect. Turner quizzed him as to who had engraved it. Saddler credited the work to his master. Turner was not persuaded and sent the boy back with a message for Mr Cooke – “Tell your master he is bringing you along very nicely – especially in lying”.
His apprenticeship finished in late 1827, Percy Heath soon found regular work with the publishers of the books and series of topographical views so popular at the time. Work is known for “Devonshire Illustrated” (1828-1832); “Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen” (1829-1831); “Ireland Illustrated” (1829-1832); “Views in the East” (1833); “Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor, &c. Illustrated in a Series of Views” (1836-1838), etc.
He was working too on developing his art: his invention of a new method of re-biting steel plates, useful in restoring or repairing worn plates, was reported in the “Mechanics’ Magazine” and elsewhere in December 1832. And in 1836 he won the large Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Arts for his invention of a ruling machine for taking the wholly repetitive work out of engraving – a design improving on the earlier machines produced by Wilson Lowry (1760-1824) and Edmund Turrell (1781?-1835). Twelve pages of the published “Transactions” of the Society for the 1835-1836 season (Volume 51) are given over to a highly detailed description of how it worked, with a complex full-page diagram of the actual machine.
A developing career and almost certainly greater fame were cut short by Heath’s early death at the age of thirty-five in the autumn of 1838. John Percy Heath of Edward Street (now Redhill Street), St. Pancras, was buried at St. James Piccadilly on the 7th October of that year.
His simple will, scribbled on a scrap of paper and unwitnessed, found in a locked drawer after his death, left £300 in invested funds to his widowed mother, Eliza Heath of 98 Piccadilly, and the rest of his property to William John Cooke above, whom he made his executor. He had no debts as of 21st September 1837 when the will was written, but there were monies owing to him from people referred to simply as Fisher, Saddler and Engleheart – Henry Fisher (1781-1837) and his son, Robert Fisher (1803-1884) were the Fisher and son of the print and part-work publishers “Fisher, Son & Co.”; his former fellow apprentice John Saddler was his neighbour in Edward Street, and Engleheart was another well-known engraver in Francis Engleheart (1775-1849), or possibly one of his sons.
Eliza Heath, William John Cooke and John Saddler all testified to the authenticity of the hand-writing and the will, while Thomas Shotter Boys also turned up to recount that in September 1837 Percy Heath had been intending a trip to Antwerp and had spoken of setting his affairs in order and writing a will. He remembered Percy Heath saying that Cooke’s business experience would probably make him a better executor better than any of his other friends. The will was uncontested and probate duly granted on 23rd October 1838, just a fortnight after the funeral. And there ended the historical record of a man who perhaps deserves better from posterity.